Lisan, a humble fisherman, mysteriously disappears for eight years before returning home. Bhatia, the wife he has left behind, has remarried in the meantime, but there’s more, and something irrepressible for him to reclaim besides her. Lisan has a royal destiny to be fulfilled.
Kathrina Mohd Daud’s The Fisherman King is an epic novel, anchored in the folk traditions of Brunei. It shares fantastical tales and yesteryear stories which blend magic, fate, sacrifice and national history.
Lisan, adopted and raised in the Water Village, was informed early in life that he was of royal descent. The nanny who had told him passed away before he could ask her more questions. Lisan remains haunted by his parentage and past as he grows up. This loss never fades away even when he meets Bhatia, his soulmate, in secondary school (and whom he later marries). Love, and the bond between Lisan and Bhatia seems unbreakable. Yet, she is not able to make him renounce his obsession over investigating his family origins. One day he leaves her and everything behind. Their reunion after eight years is at first uneasy, bittersweet, with a new man now settled in Bhatia’s life.
“I missed you,” he says and moves his hand to find hers in the dark. Unerringly, he wraps his fingers around her cool, dry ones, marveling at the slender weight of her hand. His heart jumps a little at the joy of it, so incongruous and so long waited for. “I missed you from the moment I left.”
The Fisherman King tells of Lisan and Bhatia’s coming to terms with his absence and Lisan pursuing his goal, which involves infiltrating the royal palace and living in the deep jungle to unveil secrets important to the ruling dynasty. The story moves along a double timeline which acts as an inverted mirror for two protagonists: Lisan and the voice of his kingly ancestor. Their journeys come together at the end of the novel, underscoring the cost of their ambition.
Daud’s superb retelling, and compelling style, clearly stand out. The lyrical novel (“the boat is a liquid light whip of darkness, across water too smooth to trust”) mostly takes place in or around water. Lisan must brave threatening and sacred elements to discover a treasure that may not only change him, but the entire kingdom.
He turns the light slowly, sweeping it over the wreckages. Other ships that had sunk in other storms, hundreds of years before. Unmoving. Everything is so preternaturally still. Foggy, with that blue-brown tinge that permeates down here. It is like something out of a long-forgotten memory. What no human eye has ever seen or imagined. Yet there is something so inevitable and ageless about the vast spread of wasted human labour before them, that it is almost familiar.
This is a story about greed, delusions, and what one may be willing to lose for reparations over a lost inheritance. Miscalculations are often repeated through time and Lisan is not one to escape a series of intergenerational mistakes. Not all secrets should be revealed, and not all forces, including the dark, should be convoked. Quests can distract from the treasure which already lies beneath our eyes—a lesson learnt too late for Lisan.
A 2020 Epigram Books Fiction Prize finalist, The Fisherman King brings a modern spin to this short yet dense story which reads like a classic. The novel touches upon identity, modernity, and specifically the pre-Islamic legacy of traditional lore, rituals and beliefs. It also carries the theme of social justice, and highlights the financial and moral corruption of those in power.
Living and writing from Brunei Darussalam, 35-year-old Daud makes a significant contribution to contemporary literature coming out of the country, three years after her debut novel The Halfling King. She acknowledges inspiration from Rozan Yunos whose scholarly and literary work seeks to disseminate slices of Bruneian history and heritage to a wide audience.
And in relation to this heritage, Lisan questions the history that was passed down to him, and through this, wonders not only about his own place in the world but what he will leave behind. “Did we come from the jungle to the water? Or go from the water to the jungle? And who was there… what was there… before us?” he asks his wife.
These perennial questions come to life under Daud’s meticulous mastery of place, pace, and conveying tragedy in Lisan’s undertaking. His wife Bhatia is a break-taking character and the intimacy between them draws on complex, and sublime sweeping heights. Daud commands a distinctive voice which lingers.
Farah Abdessamad is a French-Tunisian writer who has worked and lived in Cambodia in 2008-2009 and in 2019. She is currently writing a literary fiction set in Japanese-occupied Cambodia, and is based in New York City.